Winter Bike Maintenance – Drivetrain Tips

steve bikeIn this post I thought I would write about winter maintenance. Winter maintenance is a little different especially if you live in the northern part of the world. We winter cyclists have to deal with road salt, ice, snow, and for some of us sub zero conditions. Riding in the cold is not only hard on our body, but is hard on our faithfull two or three wheeled companions.

The first thing that most people notice is their chains beginning to rust. The rust is obviously from the road salt and the wet conditions. I recommend for most that they switch to a KMC Rustbuster chain and clean their chain as frequently as possible. These chains have been designed to withstand the salt much better than most conventional chains. If you don’t have access to one of these chains I would suggest a bike specific lube designed for wet conditions. The wet lube sticks to the chain better than wax lubes. If rust is still getting out of hand you could try a homemade lube of three parts mineral spirits to one part transmission fluid. Some guys use synthetic engine oil instead. Beware that this lube will get your pretty bike really nasty, but with the winter roads already doing that, it shouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary.

Freezing and rotting cables are another big problem. If you’re not running full length cable housing, you should. Most bike designers try to eliminate as much cable housing as possible to decrease weight and decrease shifter and brake cable drag. The problem with this on a winter bike is that freezing water and salt will migrate into what cable housing you do have and either freeze the cables solid or slowly rot them, which could be dangerous. As most people know, their local bike shop should sell stainless steel cables which greatly increase the life of cables on winter bikes. If you can’t afford to go with stainless I recommend that people use full length cable housings and when they install the cables to grease the crap out of them. I think that Jagwire makes a cable set that seals out the water better than conventional cables will. On a related note, many people will want to wash their bike in the winter to rid it of salt and road grime. Thats good, but for many of us that put our garden hoses away for the winter, that may be a challenge. I have personally taken the wheels off my bike and washed the frame and wheels in the shower [the wife just loved that]. Whatever you do to wash the bike, make sure you dry it as best you can before taking it back outside.

If you have ever ridden your derailleur style bike in temperatures at -15f and lower, you have probably noticed that if you try to coast or back pedal, the chain just doesn’t want to go in reverse or sometimes you have drivetrain skip. The first problem is caused by the grease in the freehub or freewheel just not allowing the freehub or freewheel to coast freely. The drivetrain skip is caused by cold grease around the ratchet pawls. The cold grease isn’t allowing the pawls to engage the freehub or freewheel body the way they should. The only remedy for these problems is to remove the wheel, remove the freewheel or freehub, and soak them in a bath of mineral spirits to dissolve the grease. After your parts have drip dried, you can either soak the the parts in engine oil or my favorite, automatic transmission fluid [ATF]. Drain as much as the oil as you can and reinstall your parts. The bike should tolerate the extreme cold a little better now.

I hope that some of my rambling helps out someone. I hope everyone stays safe out there and takes care of their bike.

About Steve Sulkowski

My name is Steve Sulkowski and I own Huron Bicycle Repair in Bad Axe, Michigan. I started working on my bikes to keep them working properly. That turned into a home based repair business that keeps me very busy. Connect: YouTube | Google+


  1. Baratier says

    Hi Steve, what is the advantage of using ATF over oil?

    • Steve Sulkowski says

      Not really an advantage. I just use it because I always have it mixed as a general purpose lube. ATF is high detergent and mixed with a couple other special ingredients makes a kick ass penetrating oil.